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I caught the last flight to propose to my girlfriend on the other side of the world

Stay in Cairo with family or catch the last flight to Canada to be with my love. I needed to decide quickly but feared that traveling during this pandemic was the equivalent of suicide, or worse, murder.

As Covid-19 began to spread across the globe, I believed nowhere was safe and self-isolation was the best course of action. Still, love will make you do stupid things.

I’m a Canadian-Egyptian in love with an Italian-American, Francesca Brundisini, who is working on a postdoc in Quebec City. She’s new to the city and feared that her isolation with no friends or family would lead to a communication breakdown if she contracted the virus.

As news of the pandemic broke out worldwide, we both realized that this crisis would last more than a few weeks. It was the distance, the uncertainty, and an alarmed Italian mother — panicking in Italy — that pushed me to make a move.

There was no guarantee I would be able to find a flight and leaving behind my family left me feeling tormented.

Both my parents are in their 60s and are at high-risk as they suffer from various health complications, including diabetes and heart issues. Leaving them could have meant never seeing them again.

They encouraged me to try to find a flight, partly because they cared and worried about my partner being alone in Canada, but also because we all thought finding a ticket would’ve been impossible.

Scrambling for a seat

Once Egypt announced its airports would close on March 19, the only tickets left skyrocketed from $700 to over $3,000, most of them requiring stops in virus-ravaged countries.

I decided to take a chance and put my name on EgyptAir’s waiting list for a direct flight to Toronto hoping for a miracle. I assumed the only way I would be traveling home was if the Canadian government sent a plane to retrieve stranded Canadians.

Incredibly, hours before the airport’s closure, I received a call confirming that I had a seat on the last flight to Canada.

I rushed to EgyptAir’s office in Cairo’s Korba district and got the ticket. As I ran out the door, a jewelry store nearby caught my eye. It was ridiculous that this non-essential store stayed open, but it was as if the universe knew I needed one at that moment.

On the drive back home, I saw Egypt’s military dispersing across the city preparing to deploy, a move that often indicates that a curfew may be coming.

Memories of mandatory curfew during Egypt’s uprisings started rushing back, but in these strange times, these draconian measures were oddly comforting as they would help limit infections.

Emotional farewell

I arrived at the airport and gave a big hug to both my parents, hoping it wouldn’t be the last.

Overwhelmed with emotions, I entered the terminal expecting to encounter scenes of chaos. Instead, the building was shockingly empty.

Before the pandemic, Cairo Airport had been bustling as tourism had begun bouncing back following recent political and social upheaval in the wake of Egypt’s uprisings.

During those times, I had seen Cairo’s airport empty, but never like this.

There was no line at the first security check. Throughout the airport, it appeared that most workers were wearing masks and sometimes gloves, but not everyone. I noticed a few workers handling the luggage carts weren’t wearing either.

As I arrived at the check-in counters, I was told that this was the last flight going to Canada. There were no other flights checking in at the time. The lack of departures was a relief as it allowed the passengers to socially distance from one another.

Once I checked in, there were no lines at security to enter the terminal and there was barely anyone inside except a few employees and passengers.

Navigating the massive walkways — at times with absolutely no one in sight — felt like being in a post-apocalyptic movie waiting for a swarm of contagious zombies to turn the corner.

At no point was my temperature checked, nor was there anyone asking about any symptoms.

I later learned from a relative who took the same plane back to Egypt that they were doing temperature checks on arrival at Cairo Airport.

The line getting onto the plane was uncomfortably crowded. Most passengers were equipped with masks and covered up, only revealing the nervousness in their eyes.

Those who remained mask-less were often old or young and equally indifferent to the crisis at hand.

The longest flight of my life

Boarding MS995 was completed in record time. Yet the departure was annoyingly delayed.

Two passengers refused to take their seats as they were seated beside the toilets. After a failed attempt to switch places, they finally decided to forfeit their tickets on the last flight out.

Every decision made on this trip seemed magnified into a matter of life and death, and sitting by the bathroom on a fully booked flight could have arguably increased the chances of being infected.

The only worse scenario would be sitting beside someone exhibiting symptoms, which is where I found myself.

Sandwiched between a 72-year-old mother and her 38-year-old daughter, I immediately offered them both hand sanitizer.

The mother was wearing a mask but appeared to have a runny nose and cough. While the daughter sitting in the aisle seat was wearing no protective measures and didn’t seem too concerned about the risk of traveling.

There wasn’t a passenger aboard that could have predicted the series of decisions made that week, and it seemed everyone had to scramble for a ticket.

“I was expecting that the borders would be closed in Canada, not in Egypt, but it happened in Egypt before Canada,” explained the mother.

As she continued to explain her frustrating ordeal to find tickets, the mother mentioned their efforts to receive help from the consulate were to no avail. Her daughter believed that visiting the EgyptAir office in person was the reason they found seats.

“I found out a lot of people on the previous flight out had been turned away because they weren’t Canadians. So, there were empty seats on that flight, and I decided we should try to go to the office and get on the waiting list … When we got the tickets, I was excited, it felt like we had won the lottery,” explained the daughter.

Throughout the flight, I was on edge as every cough was a reminder that I was potentially traveling with the invisible enemy sitting next to me. I asked the mother if she was feeling well, but she continued to assure me she was okay.

“I just got a cold a few days ago and looked at the symptoms, but they say it doesn’t start with a runny nose, it starts with a dry cough. But don’t tell anybody, I don’t want them to send me back,” she pleaded.

I wondered if she was risking the flight because she would feel safer in Canada, but then she explained: “I don’t think Ottawa is safer than Cairo, I just want to be home and be with my daughters and grandchildren.”

The whole reason for my travel was to be with the one I love, but I wouldn’t have taken the trip if I was showing symptoms.

Landing in Toronto

I arrived in Toronto and expected the airport to be filled with Canadians returning from all over the world, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had recently urged citizens overseas to head home.

To my amazement, the airport was as barren as Cairo’s. When we got off the plane, there was some security personnel handing out pamphlets reminding people to self-isolate for two weeks.

At customs, they casually asked me if I had any symptoms, but again I didn’t have my temperature checked or anything else. Maybe they had a hidden thermal imaging camera somewhere, but as a Canadian, I was concerned that these screening measures weren’t enough.

The only line I had to wait at in the airport wasn’t at customs, security or health checks but at a coffee shop. Once I reached the cashier, I again felt disheartened as none of the employees were wearing masks.

I had seven hours before my next flight. I decided to explore the airport and discovered a medical clinic.

I asked the receptionist if they offered a Covid-19 test. Their eyes widened at the question and they told me that they didn’t, but gave me a number to call if I started exhibiting symptoms.

As I continued wandering around, I assumed traffic would pick up. But by midday, there was only a handful of travelers scattered across the airport.

“I was working here during SARS, but even then, the airport was never this empty,” one airport security guard told me.

Proposing quarantine

The flight to Quebec City was half empty, allowing most passengers to take a row of seats for themselves.

Upon arrival, there was once again no screening process. I had traveled from Cairo to Quebec City during a global pandemic without even a basic check.

In the time it took me to get there, more than a thousand people had died of Covid-19, and the death toll had surpassed 10,000 globally.

When my girlfriend Francesca arrived, I snuck up behind her, got down on one knee, and proposed.

She was completely caught off guard as less than 48 hours before she didn’t know when and if she would ever see me again, let alone predict that I would ask her to marry me.

She accepted my proposal, we removed our masks and made it official with a long kiss.

I was relieved she said yes as it reaffirmed that although the journey was risky it was worth it. I couldn’t have imagined what I would have done if she refused as there was no going back to Egypt.

My fiancée loved the ring and placed it on her finger, but we both knew that the kiss sealed the deal as it meant she accepted possibly contracting the virus that I hoped I wasn’t carrying.

When they heard about the engagement, her family and friends in Italy showered us with congratulations. For many of them this was the first bit of good news they had heard in over a month.

If I learned anything from this crisis it’s that time is unpredictably short, and if I was willing to risk her health, I should also be prepared to commit to spending the rest of our lives together.

Our hope is that we will get to enjoy each other beyond the next two weeks, but we both know that there’s no telling if the risk of traveling was worth it until our quarantine is over.

When the world is healed, our plan is to get married in Italy on the island of Giglio, but it’s hard to imagine when that will be. Until that day the only couple goals we set in stone is to stay isolated and survive the quarantine.

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